Morning Observations is a feature where we break down the previous night's game with an analytical eye.
#1: Flyers win debacle of a game
The unspoken hope when every hockey game begins is that the players on both sides exit the contest fully fit and healthy. Sure, everyone wants to watch their preferred team come away with two points, but incidents like Scott Laughton’s vicious collision with the boards in last year’s playoff series versus the Washington Capitals understandably make hockey a second priority. Last night, there were two such incidents that overshadowed the fact that the Flyers finally were able to vanquish the rival Devils after inexplicably struggling against them all season long. The scarier of the two came in the first period, when Michal Neuvirth collapsed just before a neutral zone faceoff, with no obvious cause. While it appears now that it was merely a fainting spell caused by a chest cold, it totally sucked the life out of the arena and obviously terrified Neuvirth’s teammates. Then, in response to a Radko Gudas hit on John Quenneville, Dalton Prout leveled the Flyers defenseman (who did not have the puck) with a high hit, leaving Gudas dazed on the ice. Wayne Simmonds unsurprisingly answered the bell for the Flyers, taking on Prout immediately in a bout.
The Prout-Gudas situation turned the game into a powder keg, which nearly exploded when Dale Weise took a run at Kyle Palmieri during the power play caused by Prout’s original hit (which had earned him a major penalty and game misconduct). Luckily, the Weise hit did not result in further escalation, as the officials chose to remove Weise from the game, and then for the most part cooler heads prevailed the rest of the way. To be sure, physical games with lots of fights can be a blast to watch for fans, but the fate of Gudas on this night — who briefly returned but then sat out the entire third period with an upper-body injury — showed the dark side of the tit-for-tat approach that players can fall into when things get messy.
#2: Devils finally looked like themselves versus Flyers
In three games versus New Jersey this season, Philadelphia had posted an 0-3-0 record, unacceptably poor for a team with playoff aspirations facing a club with the worst record in the conference. The truly embarrassing aspect of the record, however, was the team’s performance in those games. This wasn’t a case of the Devils just getting lucky with their shots or riding stellar goaltending performances to upset wins — they were simply the better team across the three games. New Jersey outscored the Flyers 14-3 in the contests, and the Flyers flat out failed to show up for two of the games (December 22nd and March 16th) and fell apart after an awful penalty call in the other. Those were all truly deserved defeats.
Last night, however, the Flyers finally faced the Devils team that the rest of the league has had no trouble bullying during the 2016-17 season. Philadelphia blasted their opponent in the first period, posting a 63.95% score-adjusted Corsi at 5v5 and racing out to a 2-0 lead. Colin McDonald — who was just recalled to the NHL yesterday — was able to turnstile Andy Greene (the Devils’ #1 defenseman) to score one of the goals, which felt like an encapsulation of the period as a whole. New Jersey just couldn’t keep up. The Devils did fight back in the second, but Anthony Stolarz stood tall, and then the Flyers regained control in the third, eventually finishing the game with a score-adjusted xG of 59.15% in all situations. Scary moments aside, this is how Flyers-Devils matchups should have looked all season, considering the disparity in on-ice talent.
#3: Criticism of Flyers for starting Neuvirth seems unfounded
Obviously, the biggest story coming out of last night’s game was the status of Michal Neuvirth, who collapsed in the first period and was taken to the hospital for observation. The Flyers’ goaltender was conscious as he was taken off the ice on a stretcher and it seems like the situation was caused by a simple chest cold, but the safe move was to have doctors keep an eye on him overnight. After it became clear that Neuvirth was not dealing with a life-threatening situation, the discussion turned to whether he should have played in the first place. The argument was essentially that if Neuvirth was showing any signs of illness prior to the game, the Flyers should have benched him for safety reasons.
Frankly, I think this is unfair to the Flyers. Both teammates and Ron Hextall himself acknowledged that Neuvirth was dealing with a chest cold before game start, and I take that to mean that the team doctors were fully aware of the situation and still cleared him to play. It’s simply not realistic to require that every player feel 100% healthy before stepping onto the ice. Yes, Neuvirth may have felt like he “had to” play since Steve Mason was deemed unavailable to due to illness and Anthony Stolarz was rushing in from Scranton, but at some point, a team has to trust a player’s judgment regarding their own health. Neuvirth was wrong in this case, but if a team took the policy of benching every player dealing with a cough prior to game-time, my guess is that it would be very difficult for teams to dress full lineups on a nightly basis. Criticizing the fact that Neuvirth started the game strikes me as relying too much on hindsight rather than being a sound critique.
#4: Stolarz stepped in and was strong
You have to give Anthony Stolarz all of the credit in the world for jumping into a unique, difficult situation and not missing a beat. Not only did he have to jump in just after his goalie counterpart collapsed on the ice, he also did not have the benefit of skating in warmups, as he arrived at the arena (by his own admission) at about 6:55 PM after rushing across the state of Pennsylvania as a last-minute replacement for Steve Mason, who was also ill. Watching Stolarz in net, however, you would have thought this was just a routine game for him. He didn’t make too many high-difficulty stops, but that was partially because he played an economical game — always square to the shooter, and not a ton of big rebounds. He ended up stopping 26 shots to preserve Neuvirth’s shutout.
What is especially interesting about Stolarz is how his performance in the NHL this season has been so much more impressive than his overall play with the Phantoms. In five appearances with the Flyers, the 23-year old has a stellar 0.951 save percentage, and has stopped 4.36 shots more than expected, based on shot quality and location (per Corsica). Yet in the AHL, his 0.910 save percentage is just a bit over the league average. It’s why there’s a sharp divide between those who see Stolarz as fully capable of taking on an NHL backup role next year, and those who consider him the third or even fourth best Flyers goalie prospect in the pipeline.
I get the skepticism, as there’s clearly a benefit to teams “not having a book” on a guy, and five games is a very small sample. At the same time, goalie development is a strange process. Braden Holtby’s stats in the WHL, ECHL and AHL were nothing incredible prior a successful NHL stint in the 2010-11 season, and then his AHL numbers even took a dip in 11/12 before he seized the Caps’ gig for good the following year. Basically, I’m not willing to disregard the fact that Stolarz has looked like he belongs — both physically and mentally — every time he has played at the NHL level, just because his metrics with the Phantoms this year haven’t been amazing.
#5: Couturier line still effective, could be even better
The third line centered by Sean Couturier may not have contributed on the scoresheet, but yet again, they had little trouble creating high quality scoring chances, particularly in the early going when the game’s outcome was still in doubt. Only Ivan Provorov had a higher on-ice high-danger scoring percentage ratio than the three members of the third line (Couturier, Schenn and Weise), and they certainly had their opportunities to score. However, on more than a few occasions, it was Weise who could not seem to finish on the chances created by the other two forwards.
Weise’s recent run of scoring usefulness as been encouraging, but even as the points have come, he’s continued to look like the exactly the same guy to me, except with increased puck luck. That’s not to say that there isn’t value in what he brings to the table — he rarely makes mistakes in the defensive zone and is surprisingly adept with the puck in the middle of the ice — but I don’t see him as a long-term fit with Couturier and Schenn because I don’t see this surge as anything more than an unsustainable hot streak.
If the Flyers have intentions of keeping Couturier and Schenn together next year (and I like the tandem), I feel like Michael Raffl would be the best fit beside them. He basically does everything that Weise does well, while possessing superior instincts in the offensive zone, particularly in terms of net-crashing ability. The combo of Couturier and Raffl (two high-end play-drivers) should also be enough to counteract Schenn’s weakness in that area. With the emergence of Jordan Weal, the Flyers really shouldn’t need Raffl to play LW next season (if he survives the expansion draft), and he’s fully capable of playing the other side as well. A Schenn-Couturier-Raffl third line makes a ton of sense to me.
#6: Power play starting to get going
After a long stretch of ineptitude, the Flyers’ power play lit the lamp for the second straight game, and this time, they did it twice. And it’s happening for one primary reason — the bounces are finally starting to go the Flyers’ way. Over the past 25 games, Philadelphia’s power play has averaged the eighth-most shots on goal/60 and the ninth-most high-danger chances/60 in the NHL, yet were 19th in Goals For/60 over that stretch. Some of their struggles have been related to execution, but puck luck has played a big role. It’s appropriate, then, that all three of their PP goals over the past two games have come from fortunate bounces.
Simmonds’ tally against the Islanders went in right off of Johnny Boychuk. Schenn’s goal last night originated from a Giroux missed shot that bounced off the end boards. And Weal’s 4-on-3 marker was off a rebound that came right to his stick. That’s not to say that the team doesn’t deserve credit for cashing in on these opportunities. But considering how many shots the PP was creating in recent weeks, a surge like this was inevitable.
#7: Weise hit on Palmieri seemed unnecessary to me
Shortly after Dalton Prout was tossed from last night’s game due to his cheap shot on Radko Gudas, Dale Weise joined him as an exiled player after blasting Kyle Palmieri with a late hit along the boards on the ensuing power play. I’m still unsure how to evaluate the play. On one hand, it’s easy to imagine a scenario where this was a classic case of “headhunting,” in that Weise (not a power play regular anymore) was sent out by Dave Hakstol with the implicit purpose of retaliating for Prout’s hit on Simmonds. It did occur just 19 seconds into the PP, and was surely an illegal hit (late), which had Devils players and fans connecting the dots rather easily. I don’t really blame them, and if that is actually what happened, it was a stupid move by the Flyers. Simmonds had already “avenged” Gudas by tilting with Prout, and responding to a cheap hit with another cheap hit only serves to escalate a situation and risk getting another Flyer injured later in the contest.
However, this wasn’t a cut-and-dry situation. Simmonds, due to the aforementioned fight, was in the box. As a “big body” player, Weise may have just been the logical choice to slide into that netfront role on the five-minute power play with the top unit. Big hits like that generally don’t happen on the PP, and I’m not naive enough to believe that Weise’s run at Palmieri was completely independent of the Prout incident. But while it was a penalty, it did not appear Weise left his feet or made contact with the head. This may have just been a case of Weise independently trying to avenge his teammate during an unexpected shift. I can’t blame the officials for tossing Weise to maintain order, but while my first instinct was that this was a return to the Flyers culture of old, upon further review, it may have just been an unfortunate set of circumstances.
#8: Colin McDonald played well in limited minutes
In his first NHL shift of the season, Colin McDonald found a way to both score a goal and make Andy Greene wish he had never gotten out of bed in the morning. McDonald may only have received 7:30 minutes of total ice time in the contest, but he certainly made the most of it, helping the Untouchables to basically hold their own from a play-driving standpoint in addition to potting a goal. I’d still rather have Roman Lyubimov in the lineup than McDonald (and the Russian’s continued scratching strikes me as very odd), but the latter does bring a physical edge to the game and (apparently) underrated straight-line speed, as he showcased on the goal.
#9: Konecny up with Giroux and Voracek
The long-awaited reunion of Travis Konecny with the Flyers’ top duo of Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek finally occurred last night, as Hakstol’s hand was essentially forced by Matt Read’s injury. The line did show flashes of brilliance, especially early when the Flyers seemed to be dominating on every shift. However, they ended up mostly below water from a 5v5 play-driving standpoint, as Giroux and Voracek both came in under 50% score-adjusted Corsi rates. I still believe the line has a great deal of potential, and it’s hard to make too many judgments based on this case considering the odd events of the game. But the trio didn’t wow us like many had hoped they would.
#10: Four-game winning streak the second-longest of Flyers season
Back when Philadelphia was on its ten-game winning streak back in December, it felt like a near-certainty that the team would make its second straight playoff appearance. After all, no squad had ever put together a win streak so long and missed out on the postseason. But now, extra hockey appears to be an impossibility, and the Flyers’ playoff chances could officially be gone as soon as later tonight. Of course, with their fate essentially sealed, the Flyers are now on their second-best run of the season, winning four straight to barely stay alive in the race. In many ways, this recent run is more sound structurally than the December one — the team isn’t bleeding scoring chances against and surviving on a steady diet of point shots and good goaltending — but it justifiably won’t receive anywhere near the attention. Some may be annoyed that the Flyers are hurting their draft position, but I’m personally happy to see many of the early-season issues being cleared up, even if it’s far too late to matter for this year.